From scratch

No wonder some young designers think of starting from scratch. ‘Starting from scratch’, ‘beginning with zero’, ‘a tabula rasa’, ‘the Robinson Crusoe syndrome’—these are all phrases that suggest a new dynamic. The idea of beginning again—and maybe failing—recalls Robinson Crusoe’s boat in the novel by Daniel Defoe. Alone at that point on his island, Crusoe painstakingly hollowed a canoe out of a great trunk of wood, taking three months over the task. But the boat was too heavy to drag down to the sea. It was made, Crusoe concluded philosophically, ‘as a memorandum to teach me to be wiser next time’ [48].

The reality of taking control of the means of production, as Crusoe was forced to do, has been tested in various recent projects that are deliberately more visionary than practical [1]. Thwaites’ [49] reverse-engineering Toaster Project presented at his Royal College degree show in 2009 suggests the byzantine complexity of even the simplest objects we consume—and highlights the poisonous materials out of which they are made. Thwaites attempted to make from scratch an Argos electric toaster costing £3.95 using materials only from the British Isles. He made some startling discoveries in his autarchic quest. To make workable iron, he found his best guide to be De Re Metallica, a sixteenth-century treatise. His iron ore came from a ‘heritage’ mine in the Forest of Dean, his copper from polluted standing water in disused workings in Anglesey, his mica was cut with a penknife off rocks in the Scottish Highlands. He melted Canadian coins for his nickel, discovering something of the horrendously polluting nature of nickel smelting. Plastic’s complexity defeated him. His toaster ended up costing £1187.54 and it was a hilariously abject object (figure 5)—‘a half baked handmade pastiche of a consumer appliance’ ( What he learnt was the hidden environmental cost of goods that appear as if by magic in our shops. He discovered that, as sovereign consumers, we are technologically frighteningly ignorant.

Figure 5. Thomas Thwaites, Toaster 2009.

The designer Tomas Gabzil Libertiny has also tackled the paradox of living in a world of goods whose origins are barely understood. He describes his Honeycomb Vase made for the Dutch design group Droog as an example of slow prototyping. It is not made by hand nor made by machines. It is made by bees, by 40 000 bees at work for a week [50]. This essentially absurd object made people smile, but did it make them think? Perhaps Libertiny had in mind Karl Marx’s famous passage in Capital, chapter 7 on the architect and the bee [51]:

A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.

Marx was talking about the sanctity of work and the distinctiveness of human labour. We are not bees. We need to remember that we are craftsmen and women, designers and artists, and scientists gifted with imagination and foresight. In a full world that means making anything at all is a responsibility. In the context of providing material services with less material production, visionary rather than practical responses to materials and processes should not be ignored. The activities of artists and experimental designers can offer alternative value systems and new ways of approaching sustainability and material efficiency.

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